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White Oak Pasture a piece of the Serengeti in Georgia

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

BLUFFTON, Ga. -- Will Harris III is a fourth generation "cow man" ... So what would his daddy think of what he's doing on his 1,000-acre farm tucked into this bucolic corner of Early County?

"Oh, he'd have never let me do it," Harris said, laughing.

What Harris is doing at White Oaks Pasture is spinning 134 years of family tradition on its ear by turning his back on the "Industrial Agricultural Establishment's" traditional methods of cattle farming.

In 1995 Harris decided to base his farm on the "Serengeti Ecosystem Rotation Model" in which large ruminants are followed by small ruminants then birds to provide a circle of life in the ecologically rich grasslands of Africa.

"We began the transition in 1995, but the truth is we're still transitioning," Harris, 55, said."I just got tired of the excesses of the industrial agricultural system," Harris said of his decision to transition to organic farming. "We are trying to emulate nature. We're not perfect, but it's the better way."

White Oak is the only on-farm, USDA-inspected grass-fed processing plant in the United States. Harris says basis of White Oak, the state's largest certified organic farm, is that animal welfare is foremost.

"What we are trying to do is to create a system that allows our animals to follow their instinctive behavior. It's the silver bullet for animal welfare." Harris, a 1976 University of Georgia graduate with a degree in animal science, said. "Our cattle is grass-fed. We don't use hormone implants, subtherapeutic antibiotics and do not confine corn-feed."

The farm is free-range, meaning the animals are not confined to a particular pasture and are allowed unhindered movement.

Following the Serengeti Model, Harris' large ruminants are the cattle, the small ruminants are sheep and the birds are chickens and turkeys.

"My cows walk around in the woods and they don't get sick," Harris said. "The sheep follow them and the chickens and turkeys aren't far behind. As you can see we have a lot of calm, happy animals around here."

White Oak maintains an average of 1,200 cattle, 350 sheep, 3,000 chickens (little Rock Reds) and 1,200 turkeys. You'll see no 300-foot long chicken houses at White Oak. The birds are grouped in flocks of 600 and roost at night in small chicken houses like our grandparents once had.

Harris is just now stepping into the chicken business, and for the moment his business is beef -- lots of it. White Oak currently ships just more than 200,000 pounds of beef per month.

"I'm not blaspheming one type of beef over the other," Harris said. "I will not say anything negative about industrial beef. I'll just sat we have a fairly sophisticated customer base, and they can make their own decisions."

The farm is also unique in that its slaughter facility was designed by Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. A person with high-functioning autism, Grandin is a best-selling author and a consultant to the livestock industry in animal behavior.

"I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we've got to do it right,' Grandin says on her Wikipedia site. "We've got to give those animals a decent life and we've got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect."

White Oak is a zero-waste facility, getting seven boxes of beef (around 420 pounds) from a 1,000-pound cow. The hides are salted and stored to be sent to a tannery later, the entrails are liquefied and turned into fertilizer and the bones are run through a wood chipper and later spread over the pasture to add calcium to the soil.

Harris sells his beef to Whole Foods, Publix, Cisco, Buckhead Beef, Destiny Organics and Tree of Life among others. His customers range all over the eastern United States.

"There is no doubt we are a niche market, Harris said.

Harris added that White Oak's goal is "animal welfare, environmental stewardship and maintaining the local integrity of a local, non-centralized food system."

The farm's green bent goes beyond its animals. The plant's entire water supply is heated by solar energy, and some of the its power comes from a $320,000 solar pole barn. The barn is capped with 216 27x28 solar panels which generate 30 percent of the plant's energy.

Harris say he will eventually convert the plant to 100 percent solar power.

So when will that happen?

"I don't know, we'll get around to it," Harris laughed. "My whole life is a work in progress."